Bulletin 2 - June 1977: The Liwa Oasis

The Liwa Oasis

(Notes of a talk given by Tony Harris at the Community School on 4th April 1977 and illustrated by color slides.)

The Liwa is the historical home of the Bani Yas – a confederation of Bedouin tribes who constitute the majority of the native population of Abu Dhabi – and one of the three traditional population centers of the Emirates. (The others are Abu Dhabi island, which was settled in 1761 A.D. by the Bani Yas, and the Al Ain/Buraimi area which began to be settled by the Bani Yas in the 18th Century.) The Liwa itself is a long crescent-shaped series of settlements lying about 70 miles south of the Gulf coast and about 150 miles south southwest of Abu Dhabi. There is now a tarmac road as far as Bida’ Zaid (50 or so miles north of the Liwa); a graded track is being laid the rest of the way.

The Liwa is normally reached by travelling south from the Gulf shore near Tarif. The traveler first crosses the Taff, a dark featureless plain, and then the Bainuna, or open region of small active sand-dune about 40 miles wide. The dunes then begin to build up (the Qufa) and there are fresh water wells and some date palm plantations. As one approaches the Liwa oasis, the sands get higher and lighter colored, and take a distinctive form. Finally whitish sand hills superimposed on one another rise up over 100 meters and have long steep slip-faces on the southern side. These are separated by a chain of depressions running east to west, where there is fertile soil and good wells. There is also shelter from the prevailing north or north-west winds.

The permanent villages of the Liwa (called mahadher in Arabic) number about a dozen. In addition there are about 28 settlements which are occupied only at the time of the pollination of the dates (February and March) and the harvest (July to September). There are perhaps another 16 uninhabited date palm plantations. In the ‘qaith’ or high summer, the Bani Yas and the other main tribe in the area, the Manasir, used to move in considerable numbers (2500 to 3000) down to the Liwa. Many still do, for old time’s sake, though nowadays many more, particularly the younger people, go to Al Ain or travel abroad to escape the summer climate of Abu Dhabi island.

In the past, let us say 50 years ago before the modern world began to make much impression on the economy of the UAE, the region depended on four main elements, which illustrate the importance to the native population of the Liwa oasis. These were water, dates, camels and pearling. (The last mentioned constituted the main source of cash for buying imported necessities such as sugar, salt and coffee. The region suffered considerably when the pearling industry began to be affected in the 1920’s by the production of Japanese cultured pearls.)


The supply of water has always been the chief limiting factor on life in the Arabian deserts. In Abu Dhabi emirates, the water is best and most plentiful in the Liwa where it is found chiefly on the north side of the depressions at the foot of the dunes, at depths of between one and 25 meters. Even here in the Liwa the water’s main function is to support the date plantations and the domestic animals (mainly camels). The wells are generally saline and are only replenished by rain water. The human settlements are therefore nowhere large, consisting rarely of more than 20 houses. The best water is usually found in the deepest wells (which are hardest to dig). Sweet water floats on the top of salt, which means that often only a limited supply of usable water can be drawn off at any one time.


The date palm (Phoenix dactilifera) traditionally provided all the building materials in the Liwa in the absence of any other sizeable natural growth. It therefore determined the dimensions of the houses, which are invariably rectangular and box-like. Walls and ceilings are made of palm fronds tied together in mats. There are no windows; sunlight filters in through the gaps, and very important, so do the breezes.

In addition dates were the staple diet of the desert region, being highly nourishing and easy to transport. The date palm flourishes in saline conditions. It needs care when young and at the time of pollination, which, because few male trees are planted, has to be done by hand. For much of the year, the date palm can be left to itself. Despite the large number of plantations, the Liwa has never produced enough dates for Abu Dhabi as a whole, and they have always been imported into the region. This may change with the extensive planting now being undertaken. Poorer quality dates are fed to the camels and other animals.


These traditionally provided transport, meat, hair (for wearing), milk and dung (for fuel). Camel’s milk is available all the year round except at the height of the summer, when the dates are available to supplement the human diet. Camels have a special role in the desert as ‘filters’. They can live off bad water and salt bushes, and men can live off camels. (cf. the similar role of the date palm).

The development of the oil industry has injected larger and larger sums of money into Abu Dhabi. Families are no longer forced to move between the fishing and pearling ground on the one hand, and the open desert and the Liwa on the other, with excursions to buy necessities in Abu Dhabi or the Buraimi region. They have tended to congregate in the population centers (mainly Abu Dhabi). Wage paying jobs have to this extent broken up the old way of life. Furthermore, communications are much easier and the Bedouin mainly own vehicles rather than camels. Yet the Liwa, despite the economic revolution, has outwardly been little affected. It was opened up to outside influences only comparatively recently. The first European to go there was Wildred Thesiger in 1948. Its geographic position and features have not lent themselves to the economic exploitation of the Liwa.

There have of course been changes. Over the past decade, Baluchis have been employed in increasing numbers to dig wells and to maintain the Liwa’s date gardens. There are some not very successful attempts to grow vegetables by irrigation. There is an army camp there and an airstrip, even talk of an hotel. However the Liwa is still, as it has always been, a retreat. An old name for the area is "Jiwa" which means "the inner place". Time has passed the Liwa by. The advent of road will affect it, but the economic development of the Emirates will continue to be concentrated in Abu Dhabi, the coastal region, and Al Ain.


Lorimer J.G. Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf. Calcutta 1908.

Thomas B. Arabia Felix. Cape London 1932

Thesiger W. Arabian Sands. Longman. London 1959, also articles in the Geographical Journal Vols. CXIII and CXVi

Alexander Gibb and Partners – Water Resources Survey of Abu Dhabi Interim Report April 1969.

Heard-Bey Dr. F. – Development Anomalies in the Bedouin Oasis of Al Liwa. Journal of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs. October 1974.


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